Morning in Arizona

Morning in Arizona
Rainbows over Canyonlands - Dave Stoker

The Headline Animator

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ongoing Criminal Enterprises

Financial Review

Ongoing Criminal Enterprises

DOW – 26 = 18,285
SPX – 1 = 2125
NAS + 1 = 5071
10 YR YLD – .01 = 2.25%
OIL + .77 = 58.76
GOLD + 1.80 = 1210.80
SILV un = 17.18

April 29 and 30 the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee met to determine monetary policy; today, they published the minutes of that meeting. There were no surprises. Policymakers have no plans to increase interest rate targets in June. We all knew that. Officials in April “had increased uncertainty regarding the economic outlook,” the minutes showed. They had no good reason to explain why consumer spending was so weak.

“Most” Fed officials think the dramatic slowdown in growth in the first quarter was transitory and that a moderate rebound would resume in the second quarter. Inflation was also expected to move higher.  The international context isn’t helpful to the US economy. Fed officials deem “foreign economic and financial developments” as constituting “potential downside risks,” and they specifically mention Greece and China. Moreover, despite its recent partial retracement, the dollar’s appreciation is “likely to continue to be a factor restraining US net exports and economic growth for a time.”

This suggests that they see a rate hike coming sometime later this year. Only a “few” on the U.S. central bank questioned whether the Fed was providing enough stimulus for the economy at the present time and cautioned against any rate hike in the near future. This is an interesting point because the Fed really hasn’t provided much stimulus for the economy; they have provided stimulus to financial markets but not the broader economy in a direct fashion.

Indirectly, the Fed has provided stimulus to the broader economy through something known as the monetary transmission mechanism, which works largely through housing or other long-lived investments which are sensitive to interest rates. Interest rates don’t have strong impact on short-term investments or short-term capex. A lot of business investment is short-term; a lot of household spending is short-term. So Fed policy, by moving interest rates, normally exerts its effect mainly through housing. And interest rates do move housing. Remember the early 1980s when Paul Volker decided to tighten, interest rates jumped, and housing collapsed. And housing has come back from the lows, but not all the way back. One reason is because people who are most likely to buy houses got slammed in the downturn and couldn’t or wouldn’t jump back into that frying pan.

Today’s economic data backs up the relationship between housing and rates. Mortgage purchase applications fell 4.0 percent in the May 15 week though, year-on-year, applications are still up a very strong 11.0 percent. The ongoing run up in mortgage rates may be easing demand for mortgage applications just at the time that demand for purchase applications had been gaining steam.

And so the Fed is feeling like it has its back to the wall, and the wall is zero interest rates. If there is an economic problem the Fed can’t respond by lowering interest rates, or at least the impact of going into negative territory would be dangerous ground.

There was some debate about how to communicate any move to tighten rates. Some officials think it is important to give a warning to the markets, others worry that telegraphing intentions to hike rates will only result in a rate tantrum. The recent bond-market rout underscores that with bond yields near historical lows, even a moderate rise in yields would chip away the slim interest payments and inflict pain on bondholders. The Fed identifies this as episodes in which there were large monetary disturbances not caused by output fluctuations. Hopefully the Fed remembers the lesson from the Crash of 87; the markets respond violently to surprise rate hikes.

A mixed bag of economic releases this month has bolstered investors’ expectations that the Fed would wait until late this year to act. Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen will make a speech on Friday that might provide further guidance.

Five global banks have agreed to pay $5.8 billion in combined penalties and will plead guilty to criminal charges related to manipulating foreign currency exchange rates, also known as Forex. Four of the banks, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Citigroup, will plead guilty to conspiring to manipulate the price of US dollars and euros.

Barclays will pay $650 million, Citigroup $925, million J.P. Morgan $550 million and RBS $395 million. Barclays will pay another $1.3 billion to New York State, federal and U.K. regulators.

The fifth bank, UBS, received immunity in the antitrust case because they informed regulators about the Forex rigging as part of an earlier deal related to Libor rigging; UBS had signed a Non-Prosecution Agreement in 2012 on the Libor charges, and their misconduct in the Forex markets violated that earlier agreement even though they self-reported wrongdoing. So, they have immunity on Forex but they had to plead guilty to Libor rigging.  UBS will pay $545 million in fines to the Justice Department and Federal Reserve.

The five banks will pay a further $1.6 billion in fines to the Federal Reserve. Bank of America also faces a $205 million fine by the Fed, but no criminal charges. No bank employees have been criminally charged. The five banks will be under a three-year period of probation.

Between December 2007 and January 2013, euro-dollar traders at Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays, RBS and UBS gathered in an exclusive electronic chat room and used coded language to coordinate their moves in the U.S. dollar-euro market. They referred to themselves as the Cartel. By agreeing not to buy or sell at certain times, they protected each other’s trading positions. The big banks were the market makers, setting daily exchange rates, known as the fix. The fix became the price paid for billions of dollars of currency bought or sold on any given day.

And the Cartel managed to skim a little for their efforts. One Barclays trader in the chat room about adding secret mark-ups to the prices wrote: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Ben Lawsky, New York’s superintendent of Financial Services explained it simply:  “They engaged in a brazen ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ scheme to rip off their clients.” Also, a side note, after the big settlement announcement Lawsky announced he will step down next month as New York’s top bank regulator after four years. To his credit, he is not going to work for JPMorgan.

I have not yet seen a figure for how much prosecutors think the Cartel stole, but the Forex market trades close to $5 trillion dollars a day, so today’s fines amount to about one/one-thousandth of daily volume. The rigging took place over more than 5 years. I’m guessing that the money they stole in rigging Forex might amount to more than the fines ordered today. And that raises another interesting question – how did they report that income? Will they now go back and amend their earnings reports?

Didn’t managers and Board of Directors sign off under Sarbanes-Oxley?

And remember that the Forex scandal follows on the heels of the Libor rigging scandal, and the ISDAfix scandal (that involved the $381 trillion market for interest-rate swaps and the $44 trillion market for options on swaps. Banks use it to set coupons paid for bonds tied to commercial real estate. And there is a mountain of evidence, and today Barclays agreed to a $115 million dollar settlement on the ISDAfix investigation. Other banks are also being investigated.)

And before that, the municipal bond rigging scandals, and scandals in commodity markets including precious metals, and tax evasion scandals, and money laundering scandals, and predatory lending scandals, and much, much, much more. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results, but based on past performance you have to figure that the banks have rigged all the financial markets.

FT has a running total of legal fines and settlements paid by banks to US regulators since 2007. According to their calculations, the tote board just touched $155 billion. In case you were wondering, over eight years that works out to $53m per day (including weekends, because client service is a 24 hour kind of business, right.)

The big news in today’s settlement was not the size of the fines, not the scale of the scandal, but that the banks actually admitted criminal guilt. UBS violated its 2012 Non-Prosecution Agreement, and we’re still just looking at a fine for a repeat offender. The banks will get to keep their charters; they can continue to conduct business; three years’ probation. They can still vote, or at least buy elections. The deal does not prevent the Department of Justice from going after individual criminal charges but for now, nobody goes to jail.

HSBC has become one of the biggest global banks to say it will begin charging clients on deposits in a basket of European currencies to prevent its profit margins from being crushed in a record low-interest rate environment. The unusual steps come after the ECB last year became the first big central bank to announce a negative deposit rate, in effect a penalty on banks parking their surplus cash.

The Japanese economy staged a comeback in first quarter, expanding at an annualized 2.4% vs. the previous quarter. Despite the positive figure, economists are still worried about Japanese growth and deflation as most of the expansion was due to a huge build-up of inventories. The Nikkei Stock Index finished the session at a 15-year high.

It is widely recognized that Greece is running out of money. The next questions are when they will run out money and what will happen when they run out of money. Nikos Filis, from the ruling Syriza party, told Greek television Greece will not be able to make a €1.5 billion repayment to the IMF that falls due on June 5 if there is no deal with its international creditors by then.

No comments: